From the Jumpseat: Advanced Basics

Part 20

by Mark Cotter

Basic does not mean simple. In the fire service, often-heard training mantra, "Get back to basics" recognizes that we must continually practice the fundamental skills and maintain our proficiency in them. I don't dispute this point, just the approach often used to carry it out.

For example, I just completed another mandatory annual topic review for my employer, covering "basic" concepts and practices that I must follow daily and maintain proficiency in. Despite the effort and expense, however, the organization and I were little improved. Apparently, some believe that "required" classes need not be engaging or even interesting. However, all captives, even audiences, have a right to humane treatment.

Although you may require a person to attend a class, you cannot make him learn. But the teacher must engage the student with the subject matter effectively, a point often ignored during a topic review. When presented poorly, even vital information can induce boredom, which is a major learning barrier.

CPR recertification and blood-borne pathogen awareness are perennial topics force-fed to all members of my department, regardless of their individual experience or training levels, primarily to comply with regulatory requirements, but also to address liability concerns. The belief is that the department will be in less trouble if someeone screws up if it can document that the member involved attended a subject review session sometime in the preceding year. Those with additional certifications (e.g., EMT-paramedic, hazardous materials technician, and fire apparatus driver operator) may have other requirements.

But knowledge fades steadily with time, and many topics may have been updated since the last recertification. CPR undergoes a fundamental redesign at least every two years. Regular reviews are an ideal opportunity to disseminate the new or revised information to an entire organization consistently. However, using a newsletter or e-mail for topic reviews would probably work just as well for many subjects with less hardship and waste for everyone involved.

However, some material never changes significantly. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirement that we regularly review the dangers of coming into contact with other people's bodily fluids is well-intentioned, as are most burdensome regulations. But this possibility is just as dangerous to a firefighter as that of coming into contact with the products of combustion or confronting mentally ill patients with weapons (not to give OSHA ideas about expanding its curriculum).

"Basic" does not mean "easy," and training programs that review the basics need not be simplistic, nor should such a presentation be designed to inform an audience about things it should already know; this is ridiculous.

Although police officers must regularly requalify with their sidearms, I doubt they must sit through a class on how a bullet works. In fact, most actually enjoy shooting, and any grumbling about the requalifying process concerns its timing, especially if it was scheduled on the officer's day off, or the officer is concerned that he might not meet the standard for accuracy. I have never heard them actually complain about being required to fire their weapons at a target.

Since the fire service also likes to "fire its weapons," i.e., perform its basic activities such as overcoming obstacles with tools, finding lost persons, and extinguishing fires, it should consider a similar approach to reviewing skills. Firefighters would demonstrate their "marksmanship" based on how safely and efficiently they perform basic evolutions--forcible entry into a secured business, ventilating a pitched roof, searching a smoke-filled structure, and so forth. Demonstrating our skills should be enough to confirm our proficiency.

But actually exhibiting and measuring every firefighter's skill level for every potential evolution is challenging, which is why so many instructors opt instead for the lecture. Still, role-playing through well-designed scenarios, reviewing case studies, or even administering a test and discussing the answers afterwards is better review method than a lecture that just drones on, ticking items off a list. Better if the participants are expected to actually learn, instead of just fulfill an obligation.

To ensure the basics are reviewed, continuously develop and perform realistic simulations and enforce adherence to fundamental practices and standard operating procedures/guidelines (SOPs/SOGs) throughout the exercise. Isolate a particular task or topic for review if it was performed poorly. This might also raise questions about the quality of the initial instruction and the ongoing training. Present new material to the students on its own, at least initially. At a scenario or at a simulated incident, even a technical rescue situation requiring "special ops" measures, require all participants to adhere to all applicable departmental SOPs (e.g., use of personal protective equipment, incident command system, safety, company integrity, and so forth), thereby integrating training and operations theory and practice.

Evaluating and enforcing the proper use of basic techniques and practices at all training helps expose situations where a new technique may not mesh well with current practices or gear. It is always best to discover such mismatches in the classroom or at the training center, not at an emergency scene. The key is not to review the basics unless there is a question of knowledge or skill, but rather to integrate monitoring the members' performance and adherence to SOPs/SOGs into every fire department activity, which effectively eliminating the need for reviews.

"Training in Context" combines the learning of theory and practice by turning them around. Instead of initially receiving all of the background information in a classroom setting, students first learn a relatively complex evolution, such as pitched roof ventilation or fire attack in a one-story dwelling. Although the goal is to master the procedure, the process of bringing students to that level offers opportunities for teaching about other subjects (e.g., fire dynamics, SCBA use, forcible entry, chainsaw maintenance) as they relate to that evolution. A thoughtful combination of different evolutions in the curriculum ensures that a wide variety of associated topics are also presented for discussion.

In this way, students better retain "dry" information as they relate the theory to the performance of the particular activity. "On-the-job" training is just as effective for fire service training in a structured, safe, supervised, and measured environment. The Montana State University Fire Service Training School recognized the value of this approach, and uses Training in Context even for its beginner firefighter training. It is not necessarily an easier way to educate recruits, but it certainly has enhanced learning and subsequent performance, so it may be a better way.

Whatever the approach is used to ensure the maintenance of skills and knowledge, methods closely simulating actual activities and thought processes will increase the students' interest, the retention of information, and performance quality at actual incidents.

Mark J. Cotter has more than 30 years experience in emergency services and is currently a volunteer lieutenant with the Salisbury (MD) Fire Department. He will be presenting "Emergency Service Myths" at FDIC 2009 in Indianapolis, Indiana, and can be reached at

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